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From the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Ascending & Descending Glory by Anthony Esolen


Ascending & Descending Glory

by Anthony Esolen

Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers," calls out the Father to the assembled angels in Paradise Lost.

No doubt he meant also to summon the other four orders, the seraphim and cherubim, the archangels and the angels. Such were the nine orders denominated by Dionysius and accepted by Christian theologians and poets of the Middle Ages and beyond. And yet, says Thomas Aquinas, angels do not belong to species. In this regard, they are not like men. Each individual angel is his own kind.

I have no credentials in angelology, and maybe that is why Thomas's conclusion used to puzzle me. How, if each angel is his own kind, can the angels enjoy unity? And how can such unity be a model for creatures like us, who are of one kind, namely, mankind?

I think there's an answer suggested by an amiable hymn for Michaelmas, "Christ the Fair Glory of the Holy Angels," written in Latin Sapphics by the friend of Charlemagne, St. Rabanus Maurus. But before I turn to that, I'd like to meditate a little upon this business of unity.

Distinction & Unity

When I behold the long-trapped sand dunes in my town, thirty miles from the sea, I'm looking at things that are indistinguishable. A grain of sand is like a grain of sand. There is a certain elementary oneness about a dune, a oneness that is nigh unto the nothingness of empty space. But as we ascend the ladder of being, the distinctions between creatures increase, along with their capacity for being-together, for unity. A school of fish is a more complex and interesting manifestation of unity than is a sand dune; but a pack of dogs is more interesting still, since there are real, if rudimentary, relationships between each dog and each other dog.

In our own kind, we see the distinctions and the capacity for unity increase the closer we draw to holiness—to the beyond-natural fulfillment of human nature. Hence Dante's insight in submerging many of the sinners in the Inferno beneath individuality: they lose their very names. So the worst traitors of all are encased wholly in ice, like flies in amber, "together" in the most trivial sense, yet separated by an impassable distance—for they cannot even speak to one another.

"The wages of sin is death," says St. John, and after a short while one dead man looks as rotten as another, as sludge blackens and conceals the face. It is the saints, rather, who are sweetly distinct. In the Body of Christ, says St. Paul, there are teachers, apostles, prophets, people who speak in tongues—one Spirit, but many gifts. Each individual member of the body is unique, unrepeatable, a wondrous way in which God has made himself manifest. Christian writers have intuited the principle. Peter the High King is not the same saint as his friend Caspian. The youthful Alyosha is not the same saint as is Bernanos's slowly dying Country Priest.

The lives of holy men and women confirm the intuition. We have a shrewd and meditative Teresa of Avila, and an irrepressibly cheerful Corrie ten Boom. We have the converted slave trader John Newton, and a fellow like Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have devoted his life to God from the time he was a child. We have John Bosco the showman and athlete, William Wilberforce the patient politician, King Louis the soldier, and Andre Bessette the beggar and handyman. Hell is dull, as mud is dull. Heaven instead is the symphony of personal being, the symphony of love.

So why should we suppose that the angels are indistinguishable? Painters haven't helped us much here; they sometimes give us a blooming mass of cherubic baby faces and baby bodies, chubby and naked, like clumsy bumblebees. Yet if the rule I have suggested applies, then one angel is far more distinct from another angel than one saint is from another saint, and, moreover, this distinction implies all the more profound unity.

 The ultimate in distinction and unity would be, of course, the three Persons in one God; so any reduction of the Trinitarian teaching to modalism would imply a fundamentally unchristian understanding of what it means to be in unity in the first place: as if the Communion of Saints were a Collective of Saints, like an impersonal beehive, or an Ectoplasm of Saints, like a spiritual amoeba.

Ensouled Acts of Love

Here I turn to Rabanus's hymn, and find distinctions everywhere:

Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels,
Maker of all men, ruler of all nations,
Grant of thy mercy unto us thy servants
Steps up to heaven.

The last line alludes to Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder from earth to heaven. Each angel, we may suppose, is sent to a nation, or to a man, just as each man is called to imitate the angels by taking those steps toward God.

Rabanus next devotes one stanza to each of the three great princes mentioned in Scripture (which for him includes the Book of Tobit):

Send thine archangel Michael to our succor:
Peacemaker blessed, may he banish from us
Striving and hatred, so that for the peaceful
All things may prosper.

Send thine archangel Gabriel the mighty;
Herald of heaven, may he, from us mortals,
Drive every evil, watching o'er the temples
Where thou art worshipped.

Send from the heavens Raphael thine archangel,
Health-bringer blessed, aiding every sufferer,
That, in thy service, he may wisely guide us,
Healing and blessing.

If the Word of God and the Love of God are God indeed, and Persons indeed, then it seems that in the angels God has ensouled certain acts of love in personal being. I dread to step farther here, but it is notable that Michael ("Who is like God?"), Gabriel ("God is mighty"), and Raphael ("God heals") are praised by loving attention to their distinct gifts to mankind. Their union—suggested by the repeated formula in each stanza—prepares us for our own union with them and with all the blessed:

May the blest mother of our Lord and Savior,
May the celestial company of angels,
May the assembly of the saints in heaven,
Help us to praise thee.

All of which leads us to the final word of glory and unity:

Father Almighty, Son, and Holy Spirit,
God ever blessed, hear our thankful praises;
Thine is the glory which from all creation
Ever ascendeth. • 

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“Ascending & Descending Glory” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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